In 1987, producer Don Boyd brought his labor of love, Aria, to the screen. The concept was to have ten directors, each with a distinguished style, visually interpret ten arias. Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Altman, Nicolas Roeg and Ken Russell were among the directors. Predictably, many less than erudite American critics put their working class hero noses to work, sniffed it out like the gold old boy guardians of true blue Americana, and immediately pounced on it, pretentiously charging high pretension as they are usually apt to do. Whenever the subjects of opera or classical music are involved in film, rest assured American critics are going to become engaged in loudly espousing anti-pretension pretensions. Actually, Aria is a stylishly, irreverent and satirical, if uneven, treat.
Franc Roddam’s “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” is set in Las Vegas with Bridget Fonda and James Mathers excellently capturing the pathos of the doomed pair.
Ken Russell, an expert eccentric at this sort of thing, memorably tackles Puccini’s “Turandot” with hallucinatory model Linzi Drew, inlaid rubies and diamonds, and an operating table in a typically heady Russellesque mix of bizarre, mystical excess and eros.
Godard, tongue delightfully in cheek, sets Jean Baptiste Lully in a work-out gym as two women contend with narcissistic male body builders.
Charles Sturridge’s interpretation of Verdi’s “La Forza Del Destino” subtly grows brighter upon repeated viewings. Sturridge’s “Destino” aptly paints troubled youth on a joy ride through an apathetic adult world in a lament to the Virgin.
Bruce Beresford’s film of Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt,” starring a young Elizabeth Hurley, captures the music’s superficial sheen.
Nicholas Roeg, Robert Altman, Derek Jarman, Julian Temple, and Bill Bryden interpret Verdi, Rameau, Charpentier, and Leoncavallo to lesser effect, but even the slight failures here are far preferable to the bulk of Hollywood drek.
Ken Russell has had an ongoing obsession with composers: Tchaikovsky in The Music Lovers, the justifiably infamous Lisztomania, and Elgar, but his most hallucinatory and, oddly enough, most intimate work remains 1974’s Mahler, with Robert Powell (auditioning here for his role in Jesus of Nazareth) and Georgina Hale ideal in their roles as Gustav and Alma Mahler. Russell, one of the most skilled directors when it comes to marrying music and imagery, gives refreshingly imaginative life to Mahler’s Third and Seventh Symphonies, as well as to Wagner. The scherzo to the Mahler Seventh becomes a phantasmagorical, black joke on sex and death, the opening of the Third takes on new world imagery, and Wagner’s vehement anti-semitism gets blatantly cut down in Russell’s eager hands (it’s far preferable to 2001’s execrable Bride of the Wind).
Mahler has nearly become the new testament in most music circles, relegating Beethoven to old testament status; and the DVD market reflects this as much as the CD market. One of the most definitive Mahler documentaries is the 2003 What the Universe Tells Me (buy), which is a penetrating, philosophical and probing analysis of his epic Third Symphony.
There have been numerous Mahler concert films, beginning with Leonard Bernstein’s legendary filmed 1970’s cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic (a high point in this is his understandably bitchy chastisement at the hopelessly conservative, stubborn, prima-donna like orchestra members). Bernstein took on the mantle of educator once again with the insightful Mahler essay, The Little Drummer Boy, in 1985. Additional filmed performances have continued on up to the opposite end of the spectrum with 2008’s cubist Mahler Second Symphony (from Pierre Boulez) and the Berlin Staatskapelle. Most surprising of all may be surrealist auteur Guy Maddin‘s Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (buy), which re-tells this very old story as a silent ballet juxtaposed to Mahler’s 1st and 2nd Symphonies.
Before Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, Leopold Stokowski was considered the American musical educator. Uptight musicologists (is there any other kind?) may have foamed at the mouth every time Stoki walked up to the stage and played havoc with the scores, but audiences loved his flamboyant charisma and amorous flings (including an affair with Greta Garbo and a marriage to Gloria Vanderbilt ) along with his musical catholicism. This wizard was a natural choice for Walt Disney’s Fantasia.
Of course, it’s well known that Walt was crucified for this, his most ambitious project and, initially, biggest heartbreaking failure. Despite it’s almost legendary status, this one of a kind experiment (Fantasia 2000 [buy] only fleetingly came close) is so startlingly unique that mainstream audiences still don’t know quite what to make what of it, treating it almost as if it were an unapproachable, baffling avant-garde manifesto (contemporary corn fed on hyper-realism, mainstream audiences, amazingly, do nearly the same with any given Busby Berkeley film). Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, Dukas and Bach come off best, although there are rewards throughout.
Some of the most hardcore 20th/21st century avant-garde performers and performances are finally, but surprisingly, being committed to film.
Mode Studios has released a Iannis Xenakis series (Amazon search results). The late, post Webern, electronic composer’s string works, his infamous Krannerg, and La Legend d’ Eeer are among the works being performed by the Jack Quartet. These filmed performances only go further in emphasizing the music’s difficulty.
The sublime A Trail on the Water (buy), one of the best films of it’s kind, intimately humanizes the person and music of Luigi Nono, who ranks with Boulez and Stockhausen as one of the towering voices of post-World War II music. Despite his avowed atheism, Nono’s late works became increasingly meditative, introverted and, yes, spirtual. Trail aptly explores the composer’s relationship with his beloved Venice, his wife (the daughter of Arnold Schoenberg, who started it all), and two advocates in pianist Pollini and conductor Abbado.
The hopelessly overrated Philip Glass and John Cage have been well represented on DVD. The best of these is perhaps Facet’s 1992 Listen (buy) which features both Cage and Luciano Berio. However, both composers here are frequently accused of style over substance, and this film goes to no great length to disprove that.
The series Juxtapositions (Amazon search results) may be the most valuable avant-garde film collection, despite some weaker entries. Philip Glass: Looking Glass and Arvo Part: 24 Preludes for a Fugue are predictably lesser entries but Gustav Mahler: Conducting Mahler/I Have Lost Touch With the World surprisingly offers little and falls flat. Still, the excellence of Elliott Carter: A Labyrinth of Time, Olivier Messiaen: The Crystal Liturgy, Nadia Boulanger: Mademoiselle, Pierre Boulez: Juxta Positions, Igor Stravinsky: The Final Chorale/Five Orchestral Pieces, The Matchstick Man / The Seventh Door – Two films on Gyorgy Kurtag and Peter Eotvos, cannot be over estimated and are all indispensable.
Also of noteworthy mention should be the DVD releases of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide and Mass (the former being his greatest work and the latter well ahead of it’s time) , Ives: The Unanswered Question, Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur, Maria Ewing’s one of a kind, head turning performance as Salome, Strauss’ underrated Die Frau Ohne Schatten (a top notch production starring Cheryl Studer), Boulez In Rehearsal (Berg Three Pieces for Orchestra / Boulez Notations I-IV), Musik Trienniale Koln 2000 – Berg Lulu Suite / Debussy – Le Jet D’Eau / Stravinsky – Firebird, Debussy: La Mer/Le Martyre De Saint Sebastien/Lucerne Festival Orchestra/Claudio Abbado, Claude Debussy; The Fall of the House of Usher/Prélude à la l’après-midi d’un Faune/Jeux, Bregenzer Festspiele, After the Storm: The American Exile of Bela Bartok, Bartok: Bluebeard’s Castle, Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps – Ballets by Uwe Scholz, Doris Dorrie and Barenboim’s 1960’s-type take on Cosi Fan Tutte, and too many alternative “Rings” to keep track of.